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How to Cook One-Pot Backpacking Meals

How to Cook One-Pot Backpacking Meals

One-pot backpacking meals are a satisfying and low-cost way to eat well on backpacking trips. Made with Knoors rice sides, noodles, pasta, stuffing, wheat cereal, or oatmeal, some added protein like tuna, chicken, bacon, or sausage, or nuts and dried fruit they’re very easy to cook and there’s very little cleanup required. They’re also easy to assemble with ingredients from any small town supermarket or gas station/food mart on the trail.

Simple to Prepare, Simple to Clean

With all the attention given to freeze-dried, dehydrated, freezer-bag, and no-cook backpacking meals, you may have sworn off any kind of cooking beyond boiling hot water. But the time required to make a one-pot backpacking meal is often less than those other methods. For example, most Mountain House meals take 10-12 minutes to rehydrate and Good To-Go meals take 20 minutes, while the one-pot meals I like to make only take between 5 and 10 minutes to simmer after the initial boil.  Clean-up can also be as easy as swishing water in the pot if you stick to soupy meals that don’t stick to the sides of your cookpot like meals with cheese, cream sauces, or mashed potatoes.

Here are a few of my favorites – I call them “Glop Meals” because I generally keep them soupy and avoid cooking all the water off.

  1. Knorr Rice Side Chicken Flavor + Can of tuna packed in olive oil or foil tuna
  2. Ramen noodles + instant miso + foil chicken + dehydrated onions + dried seaweed
  3. Three packs of instant wheat cereal + bag with a mix of cashews, dried apricot pieces, and raisins
  4. Three packs of instant oatmeal + bag with a mix of dried dates, cranberries, etc.
  5. Dried tortellini + olive oil + salt
Sarah Kirkconnell, the author of Freezer Bag Cooking, has a lot of good one-pot meal recipes that are more elaborate on her website that you can also check out.
For breakfast or dinner: Cream of wheat with mixins is backcountry comfort food.
For breakfast or dinner: Cream of wheat with mixins is one of my backcountry comfort foods.

Best Backpacking Stoves for Simmering One-Pot Meals

The key to making a one-pot meal is having a stove that can simmer a meal on a low boil. You don’t necessarily have to simmer everything for the entire time but it makes the outcome more consistent if you can. (see Forget Boiling: How to Cook Pasta and Save Cooking Fuel)

Simmering, to be clear is a low, barely perceptible boil. The key to simmering lies in being able to control your stove’s flame mechanically, in the case of a canister or white gas stove, or by limiting the amount and rate of fuel consumption if you use alcohol, Esbit, or wood for cooking. Stoves that are only intended for boiling water like the MSR Windburner, the MSR Reactor, or the Jetboil Flash aren’t good for simmering and tend to go out if you turn them down too low. But standalone canister stoves (without dedicated cookpots) like the MSR Pocket Rocket 2, the Soto Amicus, or the Soto Windmaster are good canister stoves that can simmer.

You can also simmer with alcohol stoves that have simmer rings, which let you regulate flame intensity by limiting the flow of oxygen available. For example, the Trangia alcohol stove comes with a simmer ring, Trail Designs sells a simmer ring for their 12-10 stove, and Flat Cat Gear sells a simmer ring for their alcohol stoves.

Simmering a one-pot meal with a wood stove
Simmering a one-pot meal with a wood stove.

Simmering with Esbit takes a little practice but you can do it by breaking an Esbit cube into smaller pieces that generate less heat. Wood is also pretty easy to simmer with, especially with a backpacking wood stove, by limiting the amount of wood you feed into the fire or moving your pot away from the hottest part.

Backpacking CookPots for One-Pot Meals

I think the best cookpots for one-pot meals are 800-1000 ml titanium or anodized aluminum pots with folding handles, so you can hold the pot and eat from it without burning your hand. It helps if the pot lid has strainer holes to release pressure and avoid boilovers and if it has an easy way to remove the lid by hand when hot, without grippers or any extra tools. Liquid measuring marks are also useful so you know how much water to add to a meal.

Anodized aluminum cook pots work well because they distribute heat more evenly across the bottom of a pot than titanium, which is important if you’re cooking with a small canister stove burner head. They also hold their heat better when you take them off the stove. Titanium pots still work fine but they are usually thinner and more prone to burning if solids sink to the bottom of the pot while cooking. Frequent stirring can help ameliorate that risk though.

If you prefer anodized aluminum, the GSI Halulite 1.1L Boiler (Pot) has a very sturdy locking handle that works great and can fit a 220-gram (8 oz) medium-size fuel canister. But the pot I use most often is a titanium 1L Evernew Pasta Pot (size medium) which has folding handles, a strainer lid and graduated liquid markings. I mainly use it with an Esbit stove, but it can also fit an 8 oz gas canister if I want to use a canister stove instead. Both these pots can fit a stove and my fire-making toolkit, so they pack up as self-contained cooking systems.

It’s hard to beat Knorrs Rice Sides in terms of cost or convenience
It’s hard to beat Knorrs Rice Sides in terms of cost or convenience.

Wrap Up

If eating one pot backpacking meals sounds like an interesting way to make your backpacking meals more enjoyable, you will probably need to upgrade your stove and cook pot if your cook system can only boil water. Cooking actual food in a pot requires a stove or heat source capable of simmering and a pot that is large enough to hold about two cups of water and your meals’ ingredients. There are many existing lightweight options that fulfill these requirements and can serve double duty for boiling water when you feel like having a freeze-dried or dehydrated backpacking meal instead.

See also:

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  1. I used to be on BPL

    I used to be a poor starving student working 3 part time jobs while going to college (no debt or loans), saving pennies was number one priority. Now I’m a middle-aged obnoxiously overpaid technology contractor with a lot of disposable income. My titanium cookpot today cost more than what I earned in a week when I was in school. So the point of this is not to brag but to say that FOR ME TODAY in my life, with expensive gear my number one priority today is not saving pennies on food. My #1 priority is utilitarian functional food and gear not lowest cost meal.
    I know I know I TOTALLY know I come across as an REI snob. My point is the contrast of high end gear and penny saving recipes don’t go together FOR ME.

    • My number one priority is enjoying myself. I don’t do it to save money although one-pot cooking does end up costing less.

      • Good article, Philip. There was always one thing that puzzled me about the Knorr sides: what do you do when the recipe calls for milk? I was never quite sure how much powdered milk was needed, or whether to mix it separately with water, then add the recipe water, then add the food, or what. I solved it by not buying the Alfredo or Cheese varieties (except the Broccoli Rice and Cheese, which tasted OK using all water instead of water plus milk; the others never worked without milk.)

        • I just avoid those. They’re also harder to clean up and usually require more than a swish rinse. i do however carry cans of tuna packed in olive oil. God is that good!

      • Echo that Philip! Trying new methods is some of the best fun you can have camping out. I’d never considered these meals but will try them. I started camping in the early 70’s when freeze dried food was rare and $$$$ beyond my budget. Every meal outdoors was cooked.

        What appeals to me in your recipes and methods is keeping the pot easy to clean. I also love cooking with wood fires and often carry a firebox stove so again, great information. Thanks again for your tireless communicaiotns!

      • good article; but, I would encourage people to look at Linda Jaffe’s book Backpacking Gourmet…no mess and home-cooking on the trail

      • 1/4 C powdered Nido (grocery store) to 1 cup water = milk. I usually just add it when vacuum bagging my meals, but can be added anytime.

    • I was once in the same position you were – I used tarps partly because St. Colin (Fletcher) said to, and partly because I couldn’t afford an actual tent. I ate a lot of instant potatoes because that’s what was available. I rejoiced when the Knorr (Lipton, back then) sides appeared, and was thrilled when foil-pack tuna, salmon, and chicken became available. Like you, I now can and do spend money for top line gear (mostly because carrying light gear is one strategy for extending my backpacking life into my 80s.)

      I mostly eat freeze-dried meals now – primarily because the flavor has improved tremendously since the 1990s. But once in a while, I still enjoy some good old Knorr broccoli-rice-and-cheese with a packet of chicken. Not the lightest to carry, but the taste is well worth the weight.

      • To your question about powdered milk in Knorr meals: I use Nido, which is a powdered whole milk with lecithin added to help it mix better. It’s sometimes sold in the Hispanic section of grocery stores. (If it’s not with the other powdered milk, that’s where you’ll find it; most chain grocery stores, Walmart, etc. carry Nido). You add 1/4 cup Nido powder to 1 cup of warm water to make 1 cup of milk. So for Knorr meals, I do the math for the powder and add extra water equal to the amount of milk in the recipe. (For the math: 1/4 cup is two ounces or four tablespoons or 12 teaspoons. So 1 Tablespoon Nido and 1/4 cup water make 1/4 cup milk.) I either pre-measure or pack an appropriate sized measuring spoon (depending on whether I’m also using the Nido for other things, like adding to hot chocolate or coffee or for multiple dinners). Nido transports well double-bagged in plastic or in a small Nalgene bottle, and it mixes without clumping.

    • Good for you. Some of us are just starting out…and will upgrade when we can.
      So this is a good article for those of us that do count pennies
      Backpacking is not just for the well off.

  2. I’ve only recently started trying out dehydrated food, mainly to keep odors down since I live in black bear country now. Any concerns of uninvited dinner guest? Do you avoid certain ingredients that smell?

    • Never had a problem and I’m always in black bear territory. I just hang my food a ways from my shelter. They won’t bother you when you’re cooking and I’ve never seen any evidence of any bear bag tampering.

    • Hi Philip, just wondering what you think about putting the pot in a Reflectix cozy for 10-15 min. instead of simmering. Might be easier and save fuel.

      • I’ve had good luck with the Snow Peak Gigapower 2 stove and the Snow Peak Trek 900 pot (which includes a lid that doubles as a frying pan or bowl, as you require.) On the infrequent occasions that I use Knorr sides, it works fine. More frequently, when I eat 2 packets of Quaker instant oatmeal, I find that the lid-bowl is adequate to mix the oatmeal with hot water, and to eat out of – with the bonus that I can use the pot for tea.

        I also use an AntiGravityGear pot cozy with it in cold weather. I don’t use the cozy to avoid the simmering (but I may try that!); instead, I use it to keep the food hot while I eat it (I linger longer over supper than I used to.) The cozy also insulates my hands from the hot pot if I don’t want to hold the handles.

        One of the reasons I don’t use Knorr sides as often as I used to (and don’t eat 3 packets of oatmeal like Philip) is that I simply can’t eat as much in my 70s as I did in my 60s, and a Knorr packet just makes too much food. Every now and then, though, I still can’t resist – they’re just too tasty.

      • I’ve found that using a cozy to avoid simmering works well with Ramen and even with non-pre-cooked pasta like macaroni, if you bring it to a rolling boil, cover tightly, wrap it, and let it sit the amount of time called for in the recipe. You can also get away with using less water – in the summer we can make mac and cheese (with powdered milk and powdered cheese) without having to strain off any pasta liquid. There’s a learning curve. But rice seems to need simmering.

  3. Im also one titanium pot kitchen hiker or whatever you call :) i prepare one heavy sandwiches,and after second day prepared ramens with some extra veggie or meat in it as a colour and its always more then enough with single use knorr soup

  4. I shared a shelter one night with Dwight “Bullseye” Aspenwall, the coinventor of the JetBoil. He told me he was going to eat the same meal for the third consecutive night and was really looking forward to it. It was ramen noodles with a couple hard boiled eggs tossed in, a most simple one pot meal. I haven’t tried it yet but I will because I think it’s going to be a winner for me.

  5. I love cooking on the trail. For me, food on the trail is much more then replacing lost calories. I mostly prepare my meals at home, with thinly sliced dried tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, onions, garlic and herbs like oregano, thyme etc. On the trail I just boil some pasta, slice some salami or beef jerky, add that with the vegetables just before the pasta is done and finish by sprinkling some grind parmesan cheese. Beats any dehydrated bag any time. Sometimes I add some tomato soup powder something similar. I do the same with rice dishes and mashed potato powder. Variations are endless. In huts on some trails in Europe they often sell pasta and mashed potato. In that case, I bring the vegetables and meat, but little carbs and buy those when possible. That way I can carry food for two weeks. In the Alps in Europe, trails often lead trough small villages were you can also pick up fresh vegetables (onions, tomatoes, peppers) and dried sausages. Combined with some pasta, it’s very easy to quickly whip up a gourmet trail meal, just as fast as rehydrating a bag, cheaper and most of all: much better to eat.

  6. I have been one pot cooking or dry baking for around 10 years now. I love to backpacking and I love good food. I switched to cooking on the trails because freeze dried meals don’t have enough calories and the don’t taste that good. I turns out that I can make meals that ware over 500 calories pretty easily. In fact I can get the calories high enough that I can reduce / eliminate snacks. In May cases when bringing freeze dried foods, you end up bringing meat the same weight in snacks due to the low calories.
    Since I routinely cook meals at home anyway, I find it rewarding to camp with beautiful surroundings while enjoying a great meal. My 2 cents.

  7. I add the Knorr sides to the pot at the start. By the time the water comes to a boil, you only need to simmer for about 2 minutes to have a meal ready to eat. This saves significant time and fuel. If I am adding something like tuna, sometimes I add it at the start, other times I add it later. This process makes little difference in cleanup.

  8. Anyone else remembering “The One Burner Gourmet” by Harriett Barker?

    I tend to divide my trips between fast-and-light (Pocket rocket, titanium cup, freeze-dried food) vs. relaxed (MSR Whisperlight, larger stainless steel pot, supermarket food). Depends on whom I’m hiking with and the destination.

    On a short trip with camping near a waterfall or near a good lookout, I’m going to take some time enjoying the scenery so I’ll carry a little extra weigh and spend a little extra time on camp cookery. Peak Bagging or keeping up with my son, I’m going fast-and-light.

    For longer trips, it’s a blend. I’ll start with pre-cooked food from home that I freeze that will thaw in time for dinner the first night. Supermarket food for the second night. That’s usually a slow day for me due to aches and pains from the first day. Cooking time is rest and recovery time. From then on it’s freeze dried (lighter weight for longer carry) and I’ve got my trail legs back and want to push for higher mileage.

  9. I go freezer bag. 3 packs of Oatmeal. Not sure I could chow that much down. Two is plenty for me. I add Nido, vanilla protein powder or 1/2 Breakfast Essential, and brown sugar just because.

  10. My favorites a since the 1970’s. Mac & Cheese with either Tuna or Chicken with rehydrated vegetables mixed altogether. Never fails to satisfy. To two packs of Regular Oatmeal, and 1 packet of Raisin Date and Nut Oatmeal, is to add Chia Seeds. To my Black Coffee I like to add Chocolate Slim Fast with 1 gram sugar… Since I bought a Vacuum Sealer, I mix the Oatmeal and chia at home. I do not know if they still have it in print or not but the Sierra Club before it went Political had a nice book on One Pot meals…

  11. Salmon Alfredo: Knorr pasta side, Nido, ghee (helps with clean up, fat calories), foil pack salmon AND a small packet of lemon pepper tuna. Be generous with the water to support hydration and easy clean up.

    Instant oatmeal add ins: coconut oil packet (Trader Joes), dehydrated raspberries to top. Follow with hot drink of your choice, also aids cleaning.

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